One of the bigger surprises for the Cowboys in the 2021 NFL Draft was the fact that they landed LSU linebacker Jabril Cox in the fourth round. As a highly productive player in his lone season with the Tigers, Cox was projected by many to be a second-round pick and one of the better linebackers in his class. Cox was especially singled out as possibly the best coverage linebacker in the draft, theoretically boosting his stock as the league grows more and more pass happy by the year.
And yet, Cox was still there in the fourth round, and the Cowboys - who later admitted to debating between him and Nahshon Wright a round earlier - pulled the trigger. Jerry Jones wasn’t shy at the time about the team’s hopes that Cox would pair with first-round pick Micah Parsons to form a dominant linebacker duo for years to come, although Cox wasn’t expected to get much work in his rookie behind veterans Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith.
Well, one of those veterans (Smith) was cut before the Cowboys even made it to their bye week, and Vander Esch had his expensive fifth-year option declined before signing a team-friendly one-year deal to return to Dallas this year. In the middle of that, though, Cox had a rookie season ended early by injury. That hasn’t seemed to alter the team’s expectations for Cox heading into 2022, though.
What He’s Done
Cox dominated for three years at North Dakota State before transferring to LSU, becoming the veteran leader of a defense that had lost most of its starters the year prior in the Tigers’ national championship run. Cox showed that he could handle the jump in quality of competition, going from the FCS to the SEC. But with a crowded linebacker room in Dallas, Cox took on a special teams role early in the season.
In early-season blowout wins over both the Eagles and Giants, Cox saw four defensive snaps in each of those games. The Giants game represented Cox’s first career tackle, which was controversial because it resulted in Giants quarterback Daniel Jones suffering a concussion. The next week, in a win over the Patriots, Cox made another tackle while playing in a special goal line defensive package. It seemed as if defensive coordinator Dan Quinn was starting to test the waters on getting his rookie involved.
Alas, the very next week Cox went down with an injury. Tests later confirmed it was an ACL injury, and Cox’s rookie year was over before it ever got going. Cox ended up finishing the year with just two tackles on nine defensive snaps. He also played on 62% of the team’s special teams up to that point, which was good for fourth-most on the team at that point.
What He Can Do
Entering 2022, the ceiling for Cox is sky high. While Dallas brought back Vander Esch, they let Keanu Neal leave in free agency. The only notable additions to the linebacker corps in the offseason were through the draft, where Dallas selected Cox’s former LSU teammate Damone Clark as well as Oklahoma State standout Devin Harper. Clark is expected to miss most, if not all, of the 2022 season while Harper is expected to play mostly on special teams.
That opens up a major role for Cox in his return from injury, and Stephen Jones fanned the flames of the hype machine with his expectation for Cox to “fill right in where Keanu [Neal] left off.”
Considering that Neal played on just over 50% of all defensive snaps last year and served as the top coverage linebacker on the roster, given his experience playing safety, that creates a very distinct role for Cox to absorb and very few alternatives to take it away from him.
The question for Cox is how well he can play after recovering from a pretty serious injury. If he can make a full recovery, then Cox has the potential to become a perfect partner with Parsons; Cox’s top-shelf coverage skills perfectly complement Parsons’ elite pass rushing, giving Quinn two very unique pieces in the middle of his defense.
Until Cox can prove he’s returned to that level, though, expect him to play in a rotational role like Neal did last year. That likely looks like Cox coming in for passing downs, while Vander Esch takes his place on early run downs. The other factor to consider here is safety Jayron Kearse who frequently played in the box as a de facto linebacker last year, potentially further limiting Cox’s snaps early on.
The easy solution to that is for Cox to play like the player that so many draft experts were so high on a year ago, but that’s not necessarily a guarantee yet. The most realistic expectations for Cox are modest, especially early on as he gets back into playing shape. But Cox seems destined for a sharp increase in use from last year, and potentially entrenching himself as a starter by the end of the year, if not sooner.